Smile Politely

Rest for the weary?: A closer look at C-U’s shelter system

Read Part 1 of this series on the C-U Tent Community from last Thursday, or go on to Part 3.

“…Champaign and Urbana have hardly been unsympathetic in trying to help those who need assistance,” wrote the News-Gazette‘s editorial staff in “Time to fold up ‘tent city,'” found in last Tuesday’s edition. “Shelter, some provided by volunteer and taxpayer-funded organizations, is available.”

People are responding to Champaign’s Safe Haven tent community with questions like: “Why don’t you just go to a shelter?” That’s a legitimate question, so let’s take a look at options in the Champaign-Urbana community.

First, it should be noted that there are no “shelters” in Champaign-Urbana, only “transitional centers.” In a transitional center, residents must enter a program, whereas a shelter simply allows people to sleep for the night.

“As far as emergency shelter, there is none,” said John Sullivan, Executive Director of Center for Women in Transition. “If you were homeless tomorrow, there’s nowhere to go.”

Transitional Centers are available, though, if you qualify and are admitted to the program.

For women, there are two options in C-U: A Woman’s Place and Center for Women in Transition (CWT). A Woman’s Place serves victims of domestic violence, so if that is not your story, you can’t stay there. CWT is a transitional program that aims to empower women and children. According to Abby Harmon, 27, Safe Haven advocate, CWT has had a waiting list since last September.

“It’s pretty much always full,” Sullivan said. “Everything’s at capacity basically, and it’s not getting better.”

Understandably, the center prioritizes women with children, which means single homeless women are especially unlikely to find a place to stay.

For men, there are the TIMES Center and Salvation Army. Harmon said the TIMES Center is often full and therefore, not an option for many men. Jason Greenly, supervisor at the TIMES Center, pointed out that this is not true during warm-weather seasons.

“We do get full in the winter, but when the weather is warm, that’s not the case,” Greenly said.

The TIMES Center currently has open beds for those who qualify, but it’s not black and white; any person cannot just show up at the TIMES Center and get a bed for the night. They must be male and over 18. The center has other guidelines as well, such as limits on how many sex offenders they will take. Salvation Army, the other option for men in C-U, has strict rules to which residents must comply, and unfortunately, many homeless men are unable to fulfill these rules.

“When people say ‘just go to a shelter,’ it’s not that easy,” Harmon said.

Restoration Urban Ministries (RUM) is often grouped with the shelters as well, but is actually a nine-month transitional housing program.

“It’s not something where you just show up here and you get in,” said Linda Cramer, office manager and volunteer coordinator for RUM.

Cramer explained that RUM is looking for people who want to change their lives and are willing to commit to program requirements. Each resident pays program fees of $250 per month. RUM has helped many in the C-U community, but is not something that all homeless people qualify for or can afford

Further, Sullivan pointed out that there are no shelter options in C-U for in-tact families. If a couple and their children were evicted, for example, there’s nowhere for them to go. In the same way, there are few to no options for sex offenders. Community members tend to ostracize those who are deemed socially-unacceptable (such as sex offenders), taking a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude. However, those people don’t just disappear.

“Regardless of your history, your mental health, or your substance abuse issues, you’ve still got to live somewhere,” Sullivan said.

Failure to meet qualifications and inability to comply with shelter rules keep some men and women out of C-U’s transitional centers. Others choose not to enter the shelter system, even if it is an option for them, because the system as a whole prevents them from experiencing dignity or self-respect. According to Harmon and Jesse Masengale, 22, Safe Haven resident, shelters are often understaffed and have inadequate funding. As staff members become increasingly strained, being over-worked in stressful conditions, the result is that center residents are often not treated in a dignified way.

Additionally, housing options with cheap rent seem to be diminishing. Gateway Studios, once the most affordable housing option in C-U, closed its doors on May 13, 2009. Residents had just paid their monthly rent (which included utilities), but because the building owner had not been making utility payments, many families were evicted with only a few days notice. Other cheap housing options in the neighboring town of Rantoul, such as apartment complex Autumn Glen, have disappeared as well. The story of Autumn Glen mirrors that of Gateway Studios, with families being evicted as a result of the owner not paying utilities.

Hundreds of people in Champaign County are on a waiting list for HUD Section 8 housing vouchers, and that waiting list has now been closed. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the average wait for a housing voucher is 35 months.

“We’re dealing with full shelters and no options for people with low income,” Harmon said. “Add into that rising unemployment…”

Without question, the transitional centers that work to provide shelter in Champaign-Urbana are valuable parts of our community, but they are not necessarily an option for all homeless people. Beyond that, there is a lack of affordable housing in C-U. Thus, a portion of our community ends up camping in parks, on city streets, or in other places around town. Safe Haven, Champaign’s tent community, hopes to provide a cheap, effective, and dignified solution for these marginalized individuals.

Look for a third part to this series tomorrow, focusing on Safe Haven’s ideal solution, modeled after Dignity Village in Portland, Ore.

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